What Are You Watching? Sword Art Online

sword art online virtual worlds

EDITOR’S NOTE: What Are You Watching? is a feature series that dives deep into why we love the anime we love. You told us what you were watching, and now we’ll dig into why.

By Tom Speelman

In 2001, Reki Kawahara was an aspiring light novelist looking to break into the industry.

Seeing an opportunity in ASCII Media Works’ annual Dengeki Novel Prize competition, he wrote a novel about a teen gamer named Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya, who was chosen to be a closed beta tester for the world’s first Virtual Reality MMORPG, Sword Art Online. The hook? It’s playable only on the hyper-immersive NerveGear machine that interfaces directly with a person’s brain.

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When the game went live, Kirito was trapped alongside 10,000 other players in the game’s world by the sinister whims of its developer and NerveGear’s creator—Akihiko Kayaba.

The book ultimately turned out too long to enter the contest, so Kawahara didn’t submit it. Still believing in what he’d written, he published it on the internet as a web novel under the pseudonym Fumio Kunori.

Kirito Sword Art Online

Finding an audience—a rather sizable one—for Kirito’s story, Kawahara expanded his initial novel into a larger series, fleshing out his world, characters and the threats they continued to face...

The “light novel to anime” boom

By 2008, Kawahara had written another light novel set in a VR game world, Accel World, and submitted that to the Novel Prize Contest, where it won the Grand Prize: ¥3 million and publication by ASCII’s Dengeki Bunko imprint.

With his success unfolding, Kawahara’s fans requested that Dengeki Bunko publish Sword Art Online as well. Kawahara agreed, taking down his original light novels at Bunko’s request, and pairing with illustrator abec.

The series entered publication and became a huge hit, pushing light novels into the mainstream of Japanese pop culture (and getting published in English by Yen Press, translated by Stephen Paul) and paving the way for the “light novel to anime” boom we’re still living through today!

This is important history to know because, if you were there in 2012 when the Sword Art Online anime from director Tomohiko Ito and studio A-1 Pictures first hit, it felt like it came out of nowhere. There’d been popular light novel series turned into anime before (Boogiepop Phantom, A Certain Magical Index) and the concept of kids trapped in a video game has a similarly long history. But Sword Art Online exploded right out of the gate and is now beloved by millions.

So…what makes it so unique?

Well, even when watching just the show’s first season (time constraints prevented me from marathoning the entire series, which, as of this writing, is about to wrap up its Alicization War of Underworld arc), the answer is clear.

This series always keeps moving.

With clearly defined arcs and a knack for never losing sight of Kirito at the center of its series, Sword Art Online is unafraid to bring in new villains, allies and worlds to explore.

What to do when trapped in a fantasy?

The anime’s first season starts out following Kirito and those 10,000 other players unable to log out of the game. They’re told by the towering figure of Kayaba that if they or anyone else attempts to remove their NerveGear or they die in the game, the console will fry their brains with microwaves, killing them in real life. 

To prove he’s serious, Kayaba demonstrates his total power over Aincrad by changing everyone’s in-game avatar to reflect their actual appearance (data gleaned from a full-body scan done when the players set up the NerveGear). Always a loner and an incredibly skilled gamer, Kirito sticks to playing the game solo, not joining any guilds or alliances.

About a month into the game, with 2,000 players dead and none able to find the first floor’s boss, Kirito joins up with a huge group of the game’s strongest players, led by the knight Diavel, to beat the boss and prove to the other players that the game can be beaten.

But with everyone else forming parties very quickly, Kirito finds a fellow loner player, Asuna, and their dynamic in battle and growing bond with each other surprises the both of them.

During the course of the first boss battle, Diavel tragically, randomly dies, revealing to Kirito that he knew all along he was a beta tester. Why? Diavel was one too, and he urges Kirito to use his skills to land the final blow on the boss, scoring him the Coat of Midnight.

After the sheer relief of the boss being dead, a group of other fighters turn on Kirito, accusing him of letting Diavel die because he wanted the bonus item for himself. Wanting to protect Diavel’s reputation as a hero and not wanting to cause harm to other beta testers, Kirito makes himself the scapegoat, angrily scoffing that he was better than every other player and didn’t need anyone’s help to clear the game.

Kirito’s story begins in earnest here, and we learn more about his knack for helping others. And while he dissolves his party with Asuna, the two spark a romance that, by genre standards, is refreshingly clearheaded and honest.

It’s this contrast between depictions of reality and the realities of fantasy that help the series shine.

Um, is anyone else…scared?

That’s something that stuck with me as I made my way through the first season: as exciting as the world of Sword Art Online is, and as freeing and liberating a place it can be, Ito and his team never forget that the series’ premise is fundamentally horrifying.

One episode has Asuna reflecting on how a few weeks after the game’s launch, virtually all players stopped moving for several hours because, in the real world, they were being transferred to hospitals.

The stakes are always life-or-death, and each character’s death, whether a good or bad person, is treated as tragic and preventable. It’s never forgotten that Kayaba is the real villain behind the sheer nightmare these players are trapped in, and that’s what makes his final confrontation with Kirito and Asuna so satisfying.

When the season shifts gears into the series’ next arc, Fairy Dance, a new villain—amoral business executive Nobuyuki Sugou—is somehow even more contemptible than a man who forced 10,000 people into virtual comas to play God. Granted, that’s a hard act to beat, but Sugou does it by being the creepiest dude that has ever creeped.

Seriously, when it comes to possessiveness and entitlement, Creed Diskenth has got nothing on this guy.

What matters in shounen stories is seeing despicable people get what’s coming to them, and Sword Art Online delivers in spades. While the series’ predilection for having Kirito always find a way to win can maybe get a bit tiresome, he really is easy to like because he learns to care about others and works to protect them.

That’s why the series struck such a huge chord and still does, I think, all these years later. That’s why the fan base has stuck around. That’s why, of all people, wrestling superstar and noted otaku Kenny Omega walked out wearing the Coat of Midnight for his fight with Chris Jericho at All Elite Wrestling’s very first pay-per-view event, Double or Nothing, in 2019.

Kirito, Asuna and other characters like Suguha/Leafa are inspiring and fun to watch. Despite being based on a huge franchise, this series isn’t paint-by-numbers or rushed. It goes hard with its visuals, making for a viewing experience that sticks in your head whether you’re watching it for the first time or rewatching for the 100th.

And, in the end, isn’t that why we watch anime?